BAGHDAD—The Black Hawk hovered low over the rapid Tigris River, turning this way and that as it followed the river’s gentle curve. The war-ravaged city unfolded below us.
A year after a wave of sectarian massacres swept through Baghdad, much of the city remains a ghost town. In a scene reminiscent of the movie I Am Legend, a shepherd rushed his flock through streets once packed with cars bumper to bumper. I recognized the neighborhood: Karrada, where five years ago I shopped for food and souvenirs to bring home. Back then, the driver of my taxi had to double-park his car to let me off.
The city was full of hope then, and I would visit Iraqi friends for dinners that stretched into early morning hours. We would sit in their fragrant gardens and talk about the new Iraq without Saddam. There were occasional suicide bombings, roadside bombs targeting American troops, and unrest in Ramadi and Falluja, to the west of Baghdad, all harbingers of a widespread insurgency that was soon to engulf the country, but it was still safe for Western reporters to stroll, unaccompanied and undisguised, out of their hotels and grab some late-night chicken tikka and baba ghanoush in Baghdad’s many bustling joints. At the time, it seemed to me that if the United States tried to better understand the roots of Sunni insurgency, quickly rebuilt the infrastructure and helped Iraqi security forces return to work, American troops could prevent the violence from spreading.
I returned to Baghdad two years ago, a few months after the bombing of the Shiite Askariyah Mosque in Samarrah set off a deluge of sectarian killings. Iraqis were killing each other for being Sunni, Shiite, government employees, government critics, secular intellectuals and religious scholars, and simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mangled bodies of tortured teachers and shop owners turned up in the streets. Thousands of families were fleeing the city; thousands others were streaming in, to escape sectarian reprisals in farmlands that surround it. People huddled in abandoned hospitals, factories, others’ deserted homes; and built makeshift houses and lean-tos in the wasteland on Baghdad’s outskirts. They had little electricity, little running water, little food, and little hope.
Sectarian warfare has died down, and even as American troops battle with the Mahdi Army of the militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the slums of Sadr City, violence is on the decline. Areas of the crippled city are returning to life, like the upscale southwestern neighborhood of Saidiyah, home to about 15,000 families and the site of some of the more violent fighting between Sunni and Shiite militias. More than half of Saidiyah’s stood abandoned as recently as January this year, and now, the majority of the owners have returned. More than 800 shops have reopened here since February, a restaurant flung open its doors, and thigh-high concrete barriers that barricaded the streets are gone. A council of local representatives is made up of Sunnis and Shiites.
“A lot has changed for the positive,” said Lt. Col. Johnnie Johnson, commander of the 4th battalion, 64th armor regiment of the Fourth Bridage, Third Infantry Division, which operates in Saidiyah under the command of the Fourth Infantry Division’s First Brigade. “We take a bit of pride in Saidiyah. There are signs of light all over the place.”
Compared to the devastation I saw on the pages of newspapers and on TV in 2007, I do see signs of light. There are no corpses left to decompose in the streets. Some stores are open, and women and children walk down the street in the afternoon eating ice cream. But I saw the same picture during my last visit, in 2006, when I last saw Iraqi women and children navigate garbage-strewn streets with ice cream cones in their hands. There are just more bullet holes in the walls, more windows shattered by explosions.
To achieve the shaky peace in Saidiyah, the U.S. military has surrounded it with a 12-foot concrete wall to keep the bad guys out. Even so, Johnson pointed out, “crime still occurs.” Last week, his battalion’s Alpha Company and Iraqi forces in Saidiyah discovered a weapons cache that included 30 rocket-propelled grenades, 22 120-mm mortars and 200 pounds of C4 explosive.
When Fourth Infantry Division’s officers showed me pictures of the cache, I thought I was experiencing deja vu. Last time I was in Baghdad, the 10th Mountain Division unit I was embedded with, too, found large caches of weapons in an upscale neighborhood. The pictures on the Fourth Infantry Division’s slides looked just like the photos the San Francisco Chronicle photographer Michael Macor took during that raid.
In a wasteland just south of Saidiyah, poor Iraqis displaced from their homes still live in makeshift dwellings patched together with bricks made of mud, rusty oil canisters and bits of plastic still sit on the outskirts of town—except now the shacks are surrounded by impromptu landfills, where garbage is ankle-deep. Snowy white egrets still circle over putrid pools of stagnant water, which ranges in color from marsh brown to fluorescent green, depending on the algae that grows in it. Stray dogs pant in puddles of sewage.
Compared to 2007, life in Saidiyah has certainly improved. But compared to 2006, it has not, and in the larger scheme of things, it seems that American forces have been running to stand still—losing troops and putting in a Herculean effort just to bring the city back to the level of life that was, in 2006, widely criticized as unsatisfactory.
Except that the legacy of last year will not be forgotten easily. The memories of recent bloodshed will scar much deeper, and linger much longer, than the dints that bullets and shrapnel left on Baghdad’s walls. The return of Saidiyah’s residents poses its own challenges that, some American officers predict, the rest of Baghdad will have to confront as it attempts to resolve the city’s deep-seated sectarian conflict. Many families return from self-imposed exile just to find their homes occupied by the families of a different sect who had moved here to find refuge from sectarian cleansing in their own parts of town.
“It hasn’t become the same kind of problem it was in Bosnia,” said Maj. Mike Birmingham, the planner for the First Brigade of the Fourth Infantry Division. “But if it goes on longer, it can become different.”
Read more reports from Anna Badkhen on Truthdig.com.